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Stirring up memories


Lands of enchantment
November 3, 2004

            “From this valley they say you are going,” the old cowboy song “The Red River Valley” begins.  But this summer it was hard for us to leave, even for a day.  The mountains, the quaint vacation town nestled in that valley, and, yes, the grandchildren offered so much pleasure that we didn’t want to go away.

But at least some of our kids had another idea.  We’d persuaded Christopher and Nancy to leave four-year-old grandson Hunter while they took a day away.  They returned from their great escape to Ojo Caliente so happy and excited that they said that we must go.  In fact, they made it irresistible—they gave me the outing as a birthday gift.

Off we went, over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and across the Rio Grande Gorge.  We had to stop there, and walk out on the bridge—carefully—to take in the breathtaking view.  Some of New Mexico’s famous hot air balloons floated overhead, making it extra-special.

On to Ojo Caliente.  I can’t say famous because I’d never heard of it—but I don’t know why it’s not famous.  The first written mention of this spot was in 1535.  Almost one hundred years before the Pilgrims hit the New England shores, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote, “The greatest treasure that I found these strange people to possess are some hot springs which burst out at the foot of a mountain…so powerful are the chemicals contained in these waters, that the inhabitants have a belief that they were given to them by their gods.  These springs, I have named Ojo Caliente.”

            Ojo Caliente means hot eye, and while there is no earlier written record, even then it had long been a gathering place for the ancient people believed to be the ancestors of the present Tewa tribes.  Here they built large pueblos and gardens by the “village at the place of the bubbling hot springs.”

            In 1880 a heath spa and trading post opened.  Records show that frontiersman and adventurer (and resident of nearby Taos) Kit Carson traded at the general store.  In 1916, owners built a new mission style hotel.  Now on the National Register of Historic Buildings, this time-worn and time-honored building welcomed us to our adventure.

            It was a wet adventure—there are seven mineral pools all flowing from springs in a subterranean volcanic aquifer.  The soda spring is relaxing, the iron spring is beneficial to the blood, the arsenic spring relieves arthritis, and—no surprise—a sip of water from the lithia spring revives flagging mental attitudes.  All great fun and all relaxing, as were our massages, but most fun of all—the mud pool.  Don’t let anyone tell you grownups don’t enjoy playing in the mud.  We slathered it on, then baked ‘til we dried and cracked.

After we showered off and were only slightly dusty around the edges we headed south to Taos and the Taos Pueblo.  We’d been to Taos before.  We spent part of our honeymoon at the Taos Inn.  I set my hair on fire there—but that’s another story.  In Taos we took a quick look at the trendy art galleries and jewelry shops, nodded at the Taos Inn, then headed for our real destination, the Taos Pueblo and more American history—really, really early American history.

The Taos Indians, according to the information they gave us, have lived in this valley for nearly one thousand years.  The main part of the existing adobe pueblo building was probably begun somewhere between 600 and 1,000 years ago.  The looks have changed little since the Spanish explorer arrived and thought they had reached one of the seven cities of Cibola.  Anthropologists say they are the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.

And yes, people do still live here despite the inconveniences of doing without electricity or indoor plumbing.  About 150 of the almost 2,000 residents of the community make it their full-time home.  Every family has a dwelling here and comes in for special occasions and religious celebrations, but they also have modern homes scattered about the 99,000 acres owned by the tribe.  Many also maintain shops in the pueblo.

Almost all practice Catholicism, but many also adhere to ancient Indian religious practices.  There is no apparent conflict.  The church and the kiva exist side by side on the pueblo grounds.  The sparkling bright San Geronimo Chapel was built in 1850.  That’s almost new, considering that there has been a church in the community since 1615!  We could have stayed all day, but the pueblo closes at 4:30, so we headed back east to our own green valley.  On the way, we stopped for some of New Mexico’s state vegetable—the green chile.

            New Mexican food is distinctive—quite different from the Tex-Mex dishes of its next door neighbor, and the green chile is responsible for much of this difference.  It’s present in almost everything, and hominy, another stable of the Indian household appears in almost as many.  Here’s a tasty combination.

New Mexico Casserole

2 15-ounce cans golden hominy, drained

1 4-ounce can green chiles, well drained (find in the Mexican section at the supermarket)

1 4-ounce jar chopped pimentos

1/4  cup finely chopped onion

1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chile powder (or more if you like spicy)

3/4  cheddar cheese, grated

            Layer half the green chiles and pimentos in a one-quart grease casserole.  Add the hominy and top with the remainder of the chiles and pimentos.  Mix the parsley or cilantro, onions, sour cream and chile powder together and pour over the vegetables.  Bake covered for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.  Remove the cover, top with the grated cheese and bake for another 15 minutes.  Serve with red or green salsa.

            Drain those chiles really well; maybe let them sit in a strainer for several minutes or your casserole will be soup.   We like chiles—so I used two cans.  And beware in the supermarket.  Make sure you’ve got green chiles not jalapeños, or you’ll be in for a big surprise.  To make it Texier-Mexier, add a can of drained Ro-Tel chopped tomatoes and chiles to the sour cream.     

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network